A Response to @medialens and @rippon3105

My recent piece for Al Jazeera has come in for some criticism from the tireless campaigners at Medialens. They challenged my claim that ‘in Libya, a popular revolution has overthrown a tyrant’ and they complained that my piece made ‘not a single mention of NATO’.

As far as I know it is correct to say that a popular revolution overthrew Gaddafi, though it is, for obvious reasons, difficult to gauge public opinion in a tyranny. This remains true even though the rebels relied decisively on foreign support, as, for example the Americans did in their revolutionary war  against Britain.

I will pay close attention to what the Libyans themselves say about the matter and, if necessary, revise my views in light of the evidence. As Medialens will, I am sure.

I address the point about not mentioning NATO at the end of this post.

After an exchange on Twitter, @medialens and another Twitter user, @rippon3105, asked the questions below and I said I would answer them. Here are my responses.

“Do you consider NATO’s action a war crime?”

I believe the UN charter only authorises the use of force by states when they are subject to external attack. (Assisting the victims of aggression at their request is also lawful by extension)

The UN resolution on which NATO acted does not therefore constitute legal authorisation. Furthermore, UNSC Resolution 1970 certainly didn’t authorise NATO to act as military partner of the NTC.

So NATO’s actions were illegal, and therefore constitute war crimes.

This is the case even though the initial use of airpower by NATO ‘prevented a likely massacre’ in Eastern Libya.

“Do you think price exacted by the allies is worth it?”

There is no exchange rate I can see between human suffering and political change.

On the one hand, Gaddafi was a tyrant and I believe most Libyans wanted him gone (I’d be interested to know if this belief is mistaken). On the other hand, the overthrow has been hugely destructive and the casualties have been terrible.

The people who can speak authoritatively on this issue are the Libyans themselves, in the context of a democratic settlement. Some will be exhilarated by the overthrow, some devastated by grief. As for whether they think the suffering ‘worth it’, to some extent it depends on what happens in the future, the focus of my article.

But they, like me, might find it difficult to weigh human suffering against political change, might find it hard to answer your question.


A final point. Medialens say that I don’t mention NATO in the article. That is correct. However I do refer to foreign involvement and quite explicitly compare Libya with revolutionary America:

“Foreign powers helped them [the Libyans] overthrow their dictator. So what? Spain and France helped the US to free itself from Britain.”

I argue, in other words, that foreign assistance need not lead to lasting foreign influence over the country’s affairs. The foreign powers helping the rebels in Libya were France and Britain, primarily. I didn’t think any reader would be unaware of that. I am sorry that the point wasn’t made with sufficient clarity for Medialens to grasp it.


11 thoughts on “A Response to @medialens and @rippon3105”

  1. “The foreign powers helping the rebels in Libya were France and Britain, primarily.”

    The word “helping” is deeply problematic.

    At best, one might be able to say there is a concurrence of interests: the rebels and UK-France want to see the back of Gaddafi.

    But even that is problematic because the only reason NATO powers are now ‘against’ Gaddafi is because they perceive his position (as Libyan leader) as no longer tenable, and therefore he cannot be useful to them. (We know that Gaddafi’s, or indeed anyone’s, crimes against humanity are not a concern of UK-France, despite their professions of noble intent.)

    And the only reason Gaddafi’s position has been severely undermined is because of rebel opposition.

    In other words, UK-France are simply trying to position themselves favourably with whoever they think will prevail once the dust settles, and with whoever they think will be more amenable to serving their interests (significantly, oil).

    And even if one accepts that UK-France are indeed “helping” the Libyans, then it is a Mafiosi Godfather’s help: they will demand something in return, in perpetuity – that something being ready access to Libyan resources and lucrative involvement in Libyan infrastructure.

    1. I agree with what you are saying. The British and the French states are acting self-interestedly and they want a payoff, in the form of increased control over Libya’s natural resources. I was arguing in the piece of the need for us to be aware of that and to do what little we can to help those who want the country to be wealthy and free.

      My saying that the British and the French helped the rebels doesn’t mean I think they did what they did out of the goodness of their hearts.

      1. It’s the word “help” again – deeply problematic.

        Suppose I ‘help’ an illegal immigrant evade deportation to a country where she will very likely be imprisoned and tortured; but then I use her as slave-labour (house-cleaning would be particularly useful to me) under constant threat of my reporting her to immigration if she does not comply with my demands.

        Now, you could (in theory) argue that she has been ‘helped’ because, arguably, there was more probability of her suffering even more (even dying, perhaps) in the dungeons of the dictatorship of the country to which she has not (yet) been deported.

        But I haven’t ‘helped’ her: I have seized an *opportunity*.

        That is exactly what NATO powers are doing: trying to seize an opportunity. Libyan rebels might find NATO actions helpful, but, if so, that is just a happy accident.

        No one can say whether Libyans have been ‘helped’ by NATO right now (we can certainly say that thousands have been killed by NATO, so that’s thousands who certainly haven’t been helped – many Libyans would probably say they prefer Gaddafi’s dictatorship, the devil you know, to NATO bombs, where you can never be sure that you might be struck next).

        NATO ‘helped’ Iraqis in ending Saddam’s dictatorship. But it is perfectly clear now (has been for years) that NATO hasn’t actually helped Iraq.

  2. Like MediaLens I find not mentioning NATO odd and neglecting to mention UK govt’s (and by extension UK voter’s) responsibility for war crimes odder. Also no mention of AU peace proposal. Anaemic article altogether. Says – rebels overthrew Gaddafi, everyone wants their oil, lets hope they don’t get it. Would fit nicely in the Guardian.

  3. “Foreign powers helped them [the Libyans] overthrow their dictator. So what? Spain and France helped the US to free itself from Britain’. Yeah, and didn’t that turn out fine and dandy? The only help anyone can expect from Western powers is help which serves the interest of Western elites. You really think the Libyans will be free to vote in what ever government they want? The democracy you wish for is just capitalism, and is very different from anything I would recognise as freedom.

  4. “This is the case even though the initial use of airpower by NATO ‘prevented a likely massacre’ in Eastern Libya.”

    Do you have any reliable evidence that you can point me to that confirms that a massacre really was about to happen (as NATO tell us) and that this is not just another piece of war-enabling propaganda provided by the Western Powers for naive NSM (NatoStreamMedia) organs to regurgitate uncritically?


  5. The assessment that NATO intervention ‘prevented a likely massacre’ was made by Noam Chomsky in April this year. You can find the article here:


    Chomsky isn’t normally known for regurgitating war-enabling Western propaganda, but if you think that’s what he’s doing here, I suggest you take it up with him directly. He is always happy to engage with constructive criticism. Indeed in my few dealings with him I’ve always found him a model of patience and civility.

  6. Relevant passage from the article is:

    “On March 22, as Gadhafi’s forces were converging on the rebel capital of Benghazi, top Obama Middle East adviser Dennis Ross warned that if there is a massacre, “everyone would blame us for it,” an unacceptable consequence.

    And the West certainly didn’t want Gadhafi to enhance his power and independence by crushing the rebellion. The U.S. joined in the U.N. Security Council authorization of a “no-fly zone,” to be implemented by France, the U.K. and the U.S.”

    The intervention prevented a likely massacre but was interpreted by the coalition as authorizing direct support for the rebels. A cease-fire was imposed on Gadhafi’s forces, but the rebels were helped to advance to the West. In short order they conquered the major sources of Libya’s oil production, at least temporarily.”

    As you can see Chomsky provides no evidence for the claim that a massacre was ‘likely’ other than to repeat the claim of Dennis Ross (hardly a believable source, I am sure you will agree).

    Would it be correct to say that you have no evidence of such a massacre being ‘likely’ other than the opinion of Chomsky in this article?

    I am not one of these people who automatically agrees with everything Chomsky says – I always prefer to make up my own mind.

    Personally I don’t believe this massacre story. It stinks of NATO propaganda. Incubator babies, WMD in 45 minutes, ‘likely’ massacres in Benghazi – how many times do we have to be lied to by these people before we start to question their pronouncements?

    Also, I’m rather surprised that both yourself and Chomsky seem to think that brutal, lethal force against human beings is justified on the grounds that is was ‘likely’ that the victims of your brutal, lethal force were about to do something bad. If I were to shoot dead someone approaching my home on the grounds that I felt they were ‘likely’ to rob me, I would end up in prison in short order (in the UK at least).

  7. I’m with Dan’s critics on this one, nice cross-examination, chaps. Also well done on engaging with everyone, Dan. The “Europeans helped kick the Brits out of America” thing confuses the whole issue. From the perspective of the indigenous people Spain and France were assisting the (descendants of) European invaders to continue their genocidal conquest and occupation of their land. Apologies if I’ve been naive here.

  8. Erm, the Americans didn’t have a revolutionary war against Britain, it didn’t exist at the time. Britain had another civil war, (the third at least) fought by partisans of both factions on both sides of the ocean.

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